Venetian water taxis are set to lose some of their most high-profile passengers next month.
As Hollywood grapples with a historic double strike in the wake of actors union SAG-AFTRA calling for strike action, a dark cloud may dim the glow of Hollywood star power disembarking at the Hotel Excelsior dock.
According to multiple sources – many of whom declined to be quoted – SAG-AFTRA rules will prohibit members from carrying out any promotional activity for past, present and future projects. With some insiders predicting the actors strike will continue until early fall, it’s likely that Venice, which runs from Aug. 30 to Sept. 9, will be in the crosshairs.
“For the unions, as we go into Oscar season, withdrawing the actors from promotional activities causes the studios a lot of pain,” explained one U.S. industry insider. “Why wouldn’t they do that?”
As of press time on Thursday, the studios’ festival gameplan is still unclear. Sources indicate there are ongoing discussions about pulling films from fall festivals entirely and moving their release dates. Alternately, if festival premieres are maintained, they’ll likely happen without the support of their actors. For Venice — a festival recognized for its mega-watt star power and glitzy red carpets — this is going to hurt.
“The titles around Venice are star-driven,” said one senior PR source. “You need the actor shots for Venice because there are famous photos of them coming in on the boats, and it’s such an important platform for future awards titles. A lot of the competition titles are director-driven, so it wouldn’t necessarily affect the films’ awards future, but it would lose some of that glamor,” the PR added.
A U.S.-based industry veteran predicted optimistically that, unlike the WGA strike, the actors strike could be resolved in as early as a few weeks, but that “it’s still going to be a total shit show at Venice and Toronto.”
“I wouldn’t want to be Alberto Barbera trying to put together the lineup right now,” they noted.
For Venice, it’s shaping up to be a wait-and-see situation. “We hope that, in the interests of the entire audio-visual industry, the parties will reach an agreement quickly,” the fest’s parent organization, the Venice Biennale, said in a statement. But the prospects that the SAG-AFTRA strike will subside before the Lido launches are grim.
Of course, as Venice artistic director Alberto Barbera has repeatedly underlined in recent years the festival is not merely a showcase for buzzy Hollywood titles or even high-profile European films, but rather a festival for global auteurs and discoveries.
Last year, out of 73 feature films from 56 countries in the festival’s official selection, no more than a dozen entries had ties to U.S. majors, streamers or indie studios such as A24.
Nonetheless, Venice’s positioning as a major launch pad for Oscar season — and thus its crucial connection to Hollywood — is undeniable. Last year, nine out of the 23 competition titles were flying the U.S. flag, with many A-listers on the ground at the festival.
The impressive list of movies to hit the Oscars bullseye in recent years following a Venice launch include “Gravity,” “Birdman,” “Spotlight,” “La La Land,” “The Shape of Water,” “Roma,” “Joker,” “Nomadland” and “The Whale.”
This year’s edition has so far announced just one title: Luca Guadagnino’s sports comedy “Challengers,” starring Zendaya, Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist, which will open the festival on Aug. 30. The full lineup will be announced on July 25.
Besides “Challengers,” other potential Oscar contenders tipped to launch from the Lido include Michael Mann’s “Ferrari” toplining Adam Driver and Penelope Cruz, which Neon has acquired for domestic; Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla Presley biopic “Priscilla” for A24, starring Cailee Spaeny as Elvis Presley’s wife, and Jacob Elordi as the iconic singer; and two Netflix titles including Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein biopic “Maestro” and David Fincher’s “The Killer,” which is slated to drop on the streamer Nov. 10.
The question is whether these contenders stay in the line-up between now and July 25, or whether U.S. studios delay their Oscar-season launches for what may be a relatively brief time gap caused by the strike. Sources suggest Hollywood marketing machines are going to mount the campaigns they’re capable of under the circumstances. One scenario could mean that U.S. movies will head to the Lido with their directors in tow.
“It may well be that the directors take up the work load,” remarked one veteran PR who attends Venice religiously with a high-profile pack of clients. After all, many of Venice’s competition titles generally feature top auteurs who are enough of a draw entirely on their own.
However, another PR power player questioned the optics of such a move, noting, “I don’t know a lot of directors who would want to be there without their talent. It’s up for discussion.”
Numerous sources have observed that a Venice Film Festival impacted by strike action could be tantamount to the pandemic edition of 2020, which featured only a handful of American delegates and talent on the Lido. The difference, of course, was that actors were still able to promote their movies via Zoom.
“Ultimately, if the big American stars aren’t there, it’s going to suck for sponsors but on the upside, it’ll be a throwback to COVID times in  when Venice Festival was laidback and all about the movies,” said the U.S. industry exec.
“And we might finally get a chance to get invited to these fancy fashion dinners and get the goodie bags!”
Elsa Keslassy contributed to this report.